New York Mets 2014 Preview

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Mets should enjoy better record, but still not contending

It feels like another bridge season for the Mets, with their ace on the disabled list all season. But it is safe to say that the team is transitioning, not merely rebuilding, and with more pricey veterans on the roster, expectations should tick upward.

The Mets have had five losing seasons in a row, tied with the Astros for the longest such streak in baseball. The streak coincides with the 2009 opening of Citi Field, where attendance has dropped every year. The Mets do not seem ready to contend, but with reinforcements from the free-agent market, they could challenge .500 as they wait for their breakout ace, Matt Harvey, to return from Tommy John surgery in 2015.

Rotation
Even without Harvey, the Mets have a respectable rotation. They signed Bartolo Colon to a two-year, $20 million contract, hoping that Colon, who turns 41 in May and has a 2012 PED suspension on his résumé, can maintain the All-Star form he showed for the A’s last season, when his 2.65 ERA was the best of his career. Jon Niese withstood a partial rotator cuff tear to return near the end of the season, but he’s had some arm issues this spring that bear watching. He is a solid middle-of-the rotation guy, essentially a left-handed version of Dillon Gee. The healthy starter with the most upside is Zack Wheeler, who made an impressive debut last season with a 3.42 ERA in 17 starts. Wheeler, who turns 24 in May, worked 168.2 innings between Class AAA and the majors, meaning that he should be ready to cross the 200-inning threshold this season. Daisuke Matsuaka appears likely to make the rotation as a non-roster player this spring. He made seven starts for the Mets at the end of last season. In his final outing, he threw 7.2 shutout innings in a 1-0 win at Cincinnati. Elbow tendinitis cost Jeurys Familia much of the season, but he enters camp as a leading candidate for spot starts should Niese not be ready by Opening Day. One factor to watch: Colon and Gee both ranked in the top 25 last season in fly ball percentage — not as much of an advantage as it once was at Citi Field, where the walls are closer than they originally were, but still a source of strength that the Mets can exploit.

Bullpen
The Mets finally gave the closer’s job to hard-throwing Bobby Parnell last season, and he responded with 22 saves in 26 chances and a 1.00 WHIP, the best of his career. At 95 miles per hour, Parnell’s fastball remains his best pitch. But he threw it less often last season and utilized his curveball on more than a quarter of his pitches. The Mets lost veteran LaTroy Hawkins, who had 13 saves, to the Colorado Rockies as a free agent, but they like what they have in righty Vic Black, a former first-round pick by the Pirates, who traded him to the Mets last August in a deal for Marlon Byrd and John Buck. Black had 217 strikeouts in fewer than 180 innings in the minors. Scott Rice emerged from the shadows of a long minor-league career to establish himself as a dependable lefty from the pen. But the rest of the unit is suspect, with largely unproven Josh Edgin and Gonzalez Germen getting a chance to make the team. The Mets brought veterans Jose Valverde and Kyle Farnsworth to camp to compete for spots in spring training. Both have experience as closers, but are viewed as stopgap material at this point.

Middle Infield
The Mets’ second baseman, Daniel Murphy, had 188 hits and 92 runs scored last season, but his on-base percentage was only .319. Murphy had some pop, with a team-leading 55 extra-base hits, but advanced metrics showed that his defense was among the worst in the majors, ranking 17th of 19 qualified second basemen in Ultimate Zone Rating, according to Fangraphs. The likely shortstop, Ruben Tejada, is a better defender but backslid badly at the plate last season, hitting just .202 in 208 at-bats, and general manager Sandy Alderson called his dedication into question. Naturally, the Mets explored options to upgrade and likely will continue to look. But Tejada is only 24 and did hit .289 as a regular in 2012.

Corners
David Wright injured his hamstring on Aug. 2, missed a month and a half, and when he returned in late September, homered in his first two games to lead the Mets to victories. Even with the downtime, Wright had a fantastic season, with a .904 OPS that was his best since 2008, the Mets’ last season at Shea Stadium. He is easily the team’s best player, and the Mets must win with him while he is still in his prime. Across the diamond, the team has options at first in Ike Davis and Lucas Duda, two lefty hitters with power who struggle against left-handed pitching. Davis is a much better fielder, while Duda reaches base more reliably. The presence of somewhat redundant players means that the Mets may trade one before the season.

Outfield
The Mets’ outfield was such a shambles last offseason that Alderson cracked, “What outfield?” when reporters asked about it. He’s not joking anymore, after making three moves to put legitimate major leaguers in each position. Eric Young Jr. led the NL in steals with 46 and made 84 starts in left field for the Mets after a giveaway trade from Colorado. Center fielder Chris Young was an All-Star for Arizona in 2010, and the Mets hope he can restore his power and timing in an everyday role after slumping in part-time duty with Oakland last season. Right fielder Curtis Granderson, signed for $60 million over four years, will be counted on to have the biggest impact, with his power complementing Wright and Young in the middle of the order. Granderson is also polished and fan-friendly, an important value for the Mets as they seek to restore a tattered brand. “He brings a tremendous amount of professionalism,” Alderson said while introducing Granderson at the winter meetings in December. “He brings a personality. He brings credibility. He brings experience, and he brings talent.” That last aspect, of course, matters most of all, and after losing most of 2013 to broken bones, Granderson is eager to prove he still has it. At 33, it’s safe to expect that he does.

Catching
Travis d’Arnaud was traded for two Cy Young Award winners, Roy Halladay and R.A. Dickey, before turning 24. Injuries have restricted his playing time, but not his advancement up the professional ladder. He fractured his left foot when it was hit by a foul ball last April and played only 32 games in the minors before making his major-league debut in August. The results were inconclusive (20-for-99 with a home run), but d’Arnaud hit .286 with solid power in the minors, and there is every reason to believe he will soon be among the better hitting catchers in the game.

Bench
The Mets have some positional flexibility in Young, who can play the outfield and second base, and Duda, who can play first and a corner outfield spot, although not especially well. Josh Satin can back up at first and third, with a knack for reaching base. Juan Lagares offers superior outfield defense, while Anthony Recker is a capable backup to d’Arnaud behind the plate. Omar Quintanilla, who can play second, third and short, is a reliable backup infielder.

Management
The financial problems plaguing Fred Wilpon, whose son Jeff runs the team, severely impacted the Mets in recent seasons. They still do not operate like a big-market behemoth, but with the burdensome contracts of Johan Santana and Jason Bay finally off their books, the Mets did spend nearly $90 million in free-agent deals. That gives Alderson and his talented assistants a better chance to build the roster as they see fit, adding the right pieces to the Mets’ exciting young talent. Manager Terry Collins, a good soldier through three years of rebuilding, has more to work with in the first season of his two-year contract extension. Collins comes from the Jim Leyland mold — neither of them played in the majors, but both command respect from their teams for the way they treat players and for keeping open lines of communication. Collins even wears No. 10 as a tribute to Leyland, who gave him his first major-league coaching job with Pittsburgh in 1992. The feisty Collins turns 65 in May, but his energy for the job has never been in question.

Final Analysis
It feels like another bridge season for the Mets, with their ace on the disabled list all season. But it is safe to say that the team is transitioning, not merely rebuilding, and with more pricey veterans on the roster, expectations should tick upward. The Mets could surprise this season — Granderson, at his introductory press conference, noted that the Red Sox went from last place to a championship, while the Mets just finished third. But the first winning season of the Citi Field era would represent real progress, and without much star power besides Wright, that is probably the most realistic ambition to have.


Lineup
LF    Eric Young Jr. (S)     
Credit GM Sandy Alderson with a steal (38 to be exact) in getting Young from the Rockies for Collin McHugh.
2B    Daniel Murphy (L)     
Set career highs in games, at-bats, hits, runs, homers, RBIs and steals last season.
3B    David Wright (R)     
Mets’ ongoing struggles make him the rare New York player who is probably underrated nationally.
RF    Curtis Granderson (L)     
Brings credibility and power, but lots of strikeouts, to a needy lineup.
CF    Chris Young (R)     
Mets are betting $7.25 million that his .200 average last season was an aberration.
1B    Ike Davis (L)     
Hit .267 in July and August before oblique injury cost him all of September.
C    Travis d’Arnaud (R)     
At 25, he will have the chance to start delivering on his potential, if he stays healthy.
SS    Ruben Tejada (R)     
Alderson said it was like “pulling teeth” to get Tejada to do extra work, but the Mets have limited options.


Bench
INF    Josh Satin (R)     
His .398 OBP in minors supports the notion that his .376 mark with the Mets last season was no fluke.
OF    Juan Lagares (R)     
Standout defender must improve .281 OBP to become an everyday player.
1B/OF    Lucas Duda (L)     
Big power, but similarity to Davis gives the Mets an attractive trade chip.
C    Anthony Recker (R)     
The team will look to improve this spot, given d’Arnaud’s youth and health history.
INF    Omar Quintanilla (R)     
Made 89 starts at shortstop for the Mets last season.


Rotation
RH    Bartolo Colon     
Made 30 starts last season for the first time since 2005. Turns 41 in May.
LH    Jon Niese     
Partially tore rotator cuff in June but returned after seven weeks to finish strong.
RH    Zack Wheeler     
Won seven games in impressive debut season, with fastball averaging 94.3 miles per hour.
RH    Dillon Gee     
Lowered walk rate while leading staff with 199 innings. Has a 33–26 career record.
RH    Daisuke Matsuzaka    
In his seven starts for the Mets last season, Dice-K had a better WHIP (1.271) than in any of his years with Boston.


Bullpen
RH    Bobby Parnell (Closer)    
Lowered WHIP to 1.00 with career-best 2.16 ERA in his first full year as closer.
LH    Scott Rice     
Six years ago, had a 15.68 ERA for the Long Island Ducks. Now, he’s cemented a spot in the bullpen.
RH    Vic Black     
Came to the Mets from Pittsburgh in Marlon Byrd/John Buck trade last August.
RH    Jeurys Familia     
Healthy and still only 24, he gets a chance to reestablish himself in rotation.
RH    Kyle Farnsworth     
Had 25 saves for the Rays in 2011, but only one save and a 4.41 ERA and 1.362 WHIP in 82 games since then.
RH    Carlos Torres     
Rotation option is 4–8 with a 5.61 ERA in 15 career starts for White Sox and Mets.
RH    Jose Valverde     
Averaged 38 saves between 2007-12, but seems much older than 36 now.


2013 Top Draft Pick
Dominic Smith, 1B
After years of chasing veterans, the Mets have stubbornly held to a plan that offers no quick fixes. They have underscored that philosophy in the draft, selecting high school position players with their top picks in each of the last three years, willing to wait for the talent to blossom. Last June it was Smith’s turn to become a Met, signing for $2.6 million out of Serra High School in Gardena, Calif.; it was the most the Mets have ever given a high school prospect. Smith, who attended the draft in New Jersey, rewarded them with a strong first impression, hitting .287 with a .384 on-base percentage in the Gulf Coast League and swatting four doubles in six at-bats at rookie-level Kingsport in the Appalachian League playoffs. Smith, who attended an MLB Urban Youth Academy in Compton, Calif., while growing up near Los Angeles, has a mature approach at the plate, with a smooth swing, solid power potential and a slick glove at first base.

Top Prospects
SS Gavin Cecchini (20)
Has one home run and .256 average in 390 pro at-bats; Cardinals took Michael Wacha seven picks later.
OF Brandon Nimmo (20)
Had .397 OBP at Low-A Savannah, but fanned once every three at-bats.
RHP Noah Syndergaard (21)
Husky power starter could advance to majors this season. Former first-round pick of the Blue Jays.
RHP Rafael Montero (23)
Breakout season puts him on verge of big-league rotation, perhaps before Syndergaard.
C/1B Kevin Plawecki (23)
On-base machine who devours left-handed pitching.
RHP Jacob deGrom (25)
Lanky righty has overcome Tommy John surgery to become a rotation option for 2014.
SS Amed Rosario (18)
Received Mets’ largest international bonus ($1.75 million) in 2012; scouts love overall tools.
INF Wilmer Flores (22)
Can’t quite settle on a position, but is a three-time top-100 prospect on Baseball America lists.


Beyond the Box Score
Seizing the opportunity Lefty reliever Scott Rice was leading the majors in appearances, with 73, before sports-hernia surgery ended his season in early September. He allowed just one homer and at the time of his injury had the sixth-best ground-ball percentage among relievers. It was a feel-good story for Rice, who spent 14 seasons in the minors with five organizations and three independent teams.
Veterans Stadium The Mets will institute “Military Mondays” in 2014, saluting veterans by wearing beige-and-brown camouflage jerseys and caps for every Monday home game. On April 21, July 7, July 28, Sept. 8 and Sept. 15, the Mets will give complimentary tickets to active and retired military members and up to three guests. Staff, players and former Mets will visit VA hospitals on those dates, when the team will also honor a “Veteran of the Game.”
Two more for Terry Despite three losing seasons as Mets manager, Terry Collins earned a three-year contract extension just after the regular season. Collins, who turns 65 in May, has shown boundless enthusiasm and energy with an often undermanned roster. “To have a chance to take those pieces and move on absolutely is pretty exciting for me,” Collins says. “So I was thrilled when (GM Sandy Alderson) said, 'Hey, we want you to come back.' You know what? Maybe we can finish what we started.”
Lead recruiter After tying himself to the Mets through 2020, David Wright embraces the role of cheerleader and headhunter for the organization. Wright sent a text message to Curtis Granderson urging him to sign and acknowledged that bringing players to Flushing was not easy after five losing seasons. “Sometimes that first move is the hardest one, to convince a player of that caliber to come here, and maybe we get things turned around,” Wright told Newsday.
Jerry From Queens Jerry Seinfeld, who has a suite on the lower level behind home plate at Citi Field, joined the SNY broadcast booth in September for a few innings behind the mic with Gary Cohen, Ron Darling and Keith Hernandez. He said he enjoyed watching young players break in. “When you want to rebuild the team, you want to see some light on the horizon,” Seinfeld said, “and that’s what young players are.”

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